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Bullish on Bears: Chicago quietly emerging as NFC beast

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- In those dark rooms this offseason, Lance Briggs might as well have been watching "The Shining".

But instead of Jack Nicholson and Co. making the Bears linebacker look the other way, that film forced him to stare right into the mirror. Excuses? Chicago had those, for ranking in the bottom half of the league in total defense in each of the three years to follow its appearance in Super Bowl XLI, none bigger than the health of players like Brian Urlacher.

And if Briggs and the other guys on defense had leaned on those excuses again, maybe they'd be right back where they were, putting together another horror flick for the spring. Instead, these Bears recognized it for what it was, and took the problem head-on.

"The worst part about the last couple years is turning on the film," Briggs said. "When you turn on the film and you watch and you see it was a small mistake here or it was a missed key there or it was missed aligned there that led to a big play or a touchdown, those are the things that are hard. The (system) is the star of the defense. The defense works. You just have to have the right personnel and the guys that believe in that system."

There's a renewed belief at Halas Hall, and it's really not about the offense's augmentations of the last two years (Jay Cutler in 2009, Mike Martz this year). It's about the Bears winning the way they did in 2006, the way they usually have, and that's not the prettiest brand of football out there, which might be why Chicago has quietly slid under the radar and snuck right up to 6-3.

Do you realize the Bears are one game off having the best record in football? Or that they're 3-0 in the NFC North, and have beaten their more ballyhooed rivals from Green Bay and Minnesota?

I'm not completely sure their fan base does. Some folks (lots, actually) perpetually believe their team never gets the credit it deserves, and I've got the inbox to prove it. Chicago's the opposite. Last week, when I wrote on Jim Harbaugh's name being a hot one on the 2011 coaching carousel, Bears fans made it known what a good fit the ex-Chicago quarterback would be at Soldier Field.

At the time, prior to last Sunday, the Bears were 5-3.

"We're worried about winning games," said 13th-year Bears center Olin Kreutz. "And if we just keep worrying about that, we'll be alright. If we don't worry about proving people wrong and what other people are saying about you and all this other bull, I mean, the NFL's hard enough.

"If you're just worried about your business and what you have to do to get better, try to win games and put yourself in position to do that? That's what we're trying to do."

The offense is still uneven under Martz, as the offensive line is still settling and trying to find its identity.

But the rest has actually been really good. That resurgent defense ranks fourth in the NFL, is fourth on third down and leads the league with 24 takeaways. The special teams are first in punt-return yardage, fourth in kickoff-return yardage, and a respectable third and 15th covering punts and kickoffs.

And as such, Martz and head coach Lovie Smith, along with defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, have created a different type of mix than what they had running their respective units in tandem in St. Louis in 2001 and '02. Those Rams played at breakneck pace. These Bears have more of a breakneck mentality.

Sunday's victory over the Vikings put that on display. The Bears came in with the league's worst third-down offense. They cleaned that up, converting on 57 percent of their chances, which opened the door for a new-look Martz style to emerge, with an eye-popping run-pass ratio of 38-35 that shortened the game (time of possession: 34:39), which played right into the team's strengths on defense and in the kicking game.

"There've been years when you've fallen behind early, and you can't be patient," Martz said. "When I was in St. Louis, we liked to go fast, get out in front in the first half and put it away in the second half. Here, we're playing so well on defense and special teams that it allows us to develop and mature on offense. And I think that maturing is happening because we've been able to do that without playing in a panic."

It also helps that this year -- with Cutler having nine interceptions in nine games after throwing 26 last year -- the offense is less likely, even when it is struggling, to hand the game over to the other team. And maybe that unit, under its mad-scientist coordinator, will grow and mature, and become more Martz-like.

But for now, Smith likes the way each phase of the game is starting to complement the next. The fact that he's seen the way Martz's style fits his is a reason why he hired his old St. Louis coaching buddy, and that collective vision is starting to come together now, even if it looks a lot different than it did back in those "Greatest Show" days.

"We have seen our style of defense, along with our style of Chicago Bear offense having success," Smith said. "The last time we didn't have the special teams going with it, too, so we know that it can work together. It's left up to us now to keep putting it together.

"We are making progress, but we have a long ways to go. That's why we can't wait to get back on the field and play again, quickly. Some people see that as a negative. I'm anxious to see our team get out there and see if we can make some more improvements."

And as those improvements come, some of the bad memories are starting to get wiped away.

"If you keep chipping away, if you keep sharpening that ax, the tree is gonna start falling," said Briggs. "And for us, for our offense and special teams and defense, long as we stay at it and continue to believe that we're gonna find our mojo, finding our way, then it's going to start happening."

Maybe it doesn't last. After all, the Thursday night game against the Dolphins (on NFL Network) is just the start of a challenging stretch drive that runs the Bears smack into the Jets, Patriots and Eagles, as well as the Vikings and Packers again, so there's plenty left for Chicago to prove.

But for now, they're 6-3. And while the film on Chicago thus far might not make many people swoon, Briggs and his pals have no problem finding the beauty in it.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @albertbreer.

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